Mind, Brain, Consciousness

Buddhist meditation

All the central schools of Buddhism, whether found in South East Asia, Tibet, China or Japan, have core meditation practices in common. These date back to the earliest days of Buddhism, before the distinctions between “Theravāda” or “Mahāyāna” Buddhism came into being.

Samatha and Vipassanā  Meditation

Meditation practices are typically described under the headings of Samatha meditation or Vipassanā meditation, where Samatha is usually translated as Calm Abiding or Tranquility meditation, and Vipassanā  as Insight meditation. In the 1960s, confusion was sown when the Burmese Vipassanā  school of Mahasi Sayadaw taught that only a limited level of concentration – access concentration, rather than fully developed jhāna – was necessary for the full development of insight and, ultimately, enlightenment. As a result, Samatha and Vipassanā for a while came to be mistakenly regarded as separate traditions, when in fact they are closely interrelated and interdependent.

In the core meditation practice of Ānāpānasati, mindfulness of breathing, found in all the main Buddhist traditions, Samatha is developed progressively in stages well beyond access concentration, to the four rūpa (form) jhānas, and to the four arūpa (formless) jhānas, while Insight develops in a completely natural way alongside.

In the West, generally, Samatha meditation is only relatively recently becoming better understood. Even in some Buddhist countries, a degree of wariness is often apparent around the “magical” side of Buddhist practice associated with the jhānas, which can lead to these practices being played down, or even restricted in being taught. In Thailand, for example, the national promotion of the Burmese Vipassanā  school from the 1960s onwards, led to the dissolution of many previously Samatha-oriented meditation centres. However, Samatha meditation has of course survived, as it has since the time of the Buddha, as the central heart of Buddhist meditation.

The main form of Samatha meditation taught by the Buddha was Ānāpānasati, or mindfulness of breathing. Other forms, often used for specific character types, take different objects than the breath as the focus to develop attention. These include the kasinas, such as a disk of earth, a colour, water, or fire, or an opening onto space, among others. Visualisation of the Buddha is also a popular practice, with several variations, particularly in the Tibetan tradition, as is metta, or loving-kindness practice.

While the full development of Ānāpānasati is sometimes seen as daunting, a simplified Samatha practice known as Bu-ddho is popular in South East Asia. Bu-ddho is a very faith-based practice where the two syllables Bu and ddho are mentally linked to the in and out breath. Concentration and jhāna develop relatively easily for some meditators using this practice, but often with only limited discrimination between the different jhāna stages.

Ānāpānasati is said to be the favoured practice of all the Buddhas, and the full development of the jhānas in Ānāpānasati is described in great detail in texts such as the Visuddhimagga1 and the Vimuttimagga2, and parallel Tibetan texts. However, the detail is sometimes off-putting, and in fact many in the past have believed that jhāna can only properly be developed in seclusion, ideally in a monastic setting.

© 2012,

Western science & meditation